I spent a week in January 2018 at the Congreso Futuro (Congress of the Future) in Chile. I has never heard of this event when I was invited a few months ago, and I confess my interest was initially piqued by the prospect of a trip to Antarctica. However, in being here and experiencing the whole Congress I have thoroughly enjoyed it, and also found it an interesting and impressive attempt at popularisation and democratisation of science (and many ideas beyond the sciences) that merits some reflection.
The core of the event is a week of TED-style talks in Santiago, in the magnificent building of the former Congress. This year the broad theme of the meeting was “Tome Consciencia Hoy” (become conscious now) and there is a very pro-active future-looking theme to the whole meeting. Many of the talks are celebrations and discussions of the new scientific discoveries (from exoplanets to graphene to precision medicine) but there is also a broad environment theme (from raising alarms on topics ranging from the state of the oceans and climate or the risks of agricultural antibiotics to new approaches and technologies to dealing with these issues). Unlike many standard science festivals, there is also a fascinating disruptive edge to some of the talks, with a number of speakers questioning our economic system and social values, exploring new ways of organising democratic societies, or challenging the nature of the online world as it has been shaped thus far.
The events in Santiago are only part of the story. All through the week speakers are sent to around twelve regional centres across Chile, to participate in similar style local events. As an example, on the Monday I was in lovely Punta Arenas in Magallanes, near the southern end of Chile, together with three other speakers, at a wonderfully organised event speaking to an audience of around 200 and participating in panel discussions. The meeting audience ranged from the regional Senator and Presidential Representative (who both spoke) through to the general public and a host of school children. In the afternoon we circulated around groups of school children, answering questions about lives and careers in science, and the nature of the scientific process.
What is most impressive is the amount of effort put in to making the event accessible and to engage the wider public. All events are free to attend and overall around around 40,000 people directly attended events around the country. They are also professionally livestreamed (with around 2.1 million viewers) and heavily covered on national TV, and follow-up programmes are built from the material and broadcast on TV throughout the year, to keep the meeting and its content in the public discourse. There is strong political support, with both the President and President-Elect (of opposite parties) speaking at the opening ceremony, and the key dinner of the week hosted by the President in the La Moneda palace. The Senate has played a key role in originating and supporting the concept over the years, although now there is also substantial (perhaps almost all) funding from sponsors.
As guest speakers you are very well looked after. Smiley and helpful student guides are assigned to each speaker and there to help with every logistical issue - my guide Bastian was just great) - the main requirements to be accepted as a guide seems to be good grades and language skills. The field trips before the meeting (to either Antarctica/Patagonia or to the Atacama Desert and its mountain astronomical observatories) are just spectacular (and certainly a cunning strategic bait to attract many key thinkers to Chile to an event they may never have heard of), and there are a range of wonderful events and receptions throughout the week. The trips also served as a chance to get to know and really bond with the organisers and other speakers, which played a valuable role in taking away the potential anonymity of such a broad ranging and disparate meeting.
At a time when some national horizons seem to be retreating in vision and evidence-based thinking is questioned as being mere ideology, it is remarkable to see such a high-level celebration of knowledge, evidence and critical thinking, and questioning of the status quo, and moreover one played out on a national stage and with such strong political support. It is also remarkable that a middle-income nation, Chile, is leading the way and punching well above its weight. In terms of engaging a nation in thinking about where the future is going and what kind of future we wish to have, and I have not come across any other event operating at a national scale and at this level. There are lessons to be learnt in many nations (whether existing or emerging scientific powers) from the Congress of the Future. I wish it well, and may it contribute to raising a new generation of thinkers and questioners in Chile, and to shaping the regional global discussion on what kind of future we are heading towards and what kind of future we want.
Yadvinder Malhi is an ecosytem ecologist and Professor of Ecosystem Science at Oxford University